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24 November 2021

Reviewed in short: New books by Ann Patchett, Olivia Yallop, Duncan Weldon and Phil Burton-Cartledge

These Precious Days by Patchett, Break the Internet by Yallop, Muddling Through by Weldon and Falling Down by Burton-Cartledge.

By Leo Robson, Sarah Manavis, Michael Prodger and Freddie Hayward

These Precious Days by Ann Patchett
Bloomsbury, 336pp, £16.99

When Ann Patchett is writing an essay, she ceases to worry about dying. The idea of leaving a novel unfinished, she explains in a tortuous but amiable bit of logic, is a haunting one, but death “has no interest in essays”. Here she collects 23 results of this exercise in distraction, most of them personal, all of them well-worked, not a few carrying traces of folksiness, as reflected in titles such as “The Moment Nothing Changed” and “How Knitting Saved My Life. Twice.”

Patchett, the author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder, starts with a reflection on her “three fathers” – the men to whom her mother was married. In the penultimate essay, she returns to say “two more things” about her birth father before rounding off with some thoughts about a father-figure of a different kind, John Updike. If she could stop time, Patchett maintains, it would be to read all of Updike’s books. In reality, time marches on, giving her more things to write essays about – the year in which she didn’t buy anything non-essential, the cover art chosen for her novels and her changing relationship with the stories of Eudora Welty.
By Leo Robson

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Ken Worpole, Craig Whitlock, Mary Roach and Ilya Kaminsky]

Break the Internet: In Pursuit of Influence by Olivia Yallop
Scribe, 288pp, £16.99

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In 2021, publishers are reckoning with a problem: how do you publish a book about internet culture that doesn’t immediately become outdated because of the pace of change? Scribe may be the first to find an answer with Break the Internet, an exploration of the UK influencer industry by the strategist Olivia Yallop.

The book is a historical review of the internet in the 2010s that assesses how influencing became so lucrative, while avoiding too much focus on current trends. Yallop includes interviews with fashion bloggers and TikTokkers, as well as revealing data (we learn that 96.5 per cent of American YouTubers earn below the federal poverty line), but doesn’t allow the book to get too tech-heavy. Her career working in influencer marketing provides juicy anecdotes, such as when she observed immense competitiveness between influencers at a party where guests had to have a million followers. Break the Internet explains how technology, the attention economy and traditional media collide – a pacy story that’s of the moment but goes beyond it, too.
By Sarah Manavis

[See also: In My Body, Emily Ratajkowski asks difficult questions about beauty and capitalism. Does she have any answers?]

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Muddling Through by Duncan Weldon
Little, Brown, 352pp, £20

This book, says Duncan Weldon, is “about how the British economy got to where it is today”. It is also about the hopelessness of dirigisme: the economy may have been a necessary fixation for every British government from Robert Peel’s to Boris Johnson’s but it has proved to be an intractable beast. If today’s string-pullers fret about issues such as the balance between sovereignty and openness, the impact of new technologies, or rising inequality, then, shows Weldon, our economic ancestors did too.

For Weldon, an economics writer formerly of the Bank of England, the economy and history are inseparable. What modern economists deal with is an inheritance that took on a recognisable form with the Industrial Revolution and 19th-century urbanisation. He singles out the 1930s and 1970s as pernicious high-inflation, high-unemployment decades and shows how every metric – from GDP to the tax take – can be traced backwards: in 2015, for example, real pay was under pressure in a way last seen during the Napoleonic Wars. Among the many benefits of Weldon’s persuasive analysis is that he makes his subject comprehensible to even the most economically challenged.
By Michael Prodger

Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain by Phil Burton-Cartledge
Verso, 336pp, £18.99

Despite 140,000 excess pandemic deaths, accusations of corruption and a decade of stagnant wages, current polling suggests that the Conservative Party is likely to rule for much of the 2020s. Nonetheless, sociologist Phil Burton-Cartledge believes that the party is facing decline. The voter base Margaret Thatcher built by selling council houses and shares in privatised industries is ageing, he explains. Young people, shut out from the property market and punished by successive Conservative governments, can’t acquire the lifestyle that persuaded their parents to vote Tory. Without a renewal of support, Burton-Cartledge argues, the Conservatives’ voter base will dwindle.

His focus on material conditions is a welcome respite from the short-termism of other commentators. But he underplays factors in the Tories’ favour, such
as the upcoming constituency boundary changes that will aid them in future elections. This is an assertive history of the party since Thatcher, but Burton-Cartledge also neglects a simple fact of the British electoral system: for the Tories to fail, Labour must succeed.
By Freddie Hayward

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Steve Richards, Michael Pye, Justine Picardie and Sandro Veronesi]

This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos